The dwarf planet Ceres, which is the biggest object in the asteroid belt lying between Mars and Jupiter, is spewing water vapor into space from its ice-covered surface, scientists say.
Researchers detected plumes of water vapor, which periodically gushes from Ceres, via using the European Space Agency’s Herschel infrared space telescope. The discovery was reported on Wednesday in the journal Nature.
“This is the first time water vapor has been unequivocally detected on Ceres or any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere,” said Michael Kuppers of the European Space Agency (ESA).
The plumes of water vapor are believed to be coming from dark colored areas on Ceres’ surface. However, scientists are not sure what causes them.
One idea is that the sun sometimes warms parts of the icy surface enough that water vapor appears.
“Another possibility is that there is still some energy in the interior of Ceres, and this energy would make the water vent out in a similar way as for geysers on Earth, only that with the low pressure at the surface of the asteroid, what comes out would be a vapor and not a liquid,” Kuppers added.
Researchers believe that Ceres has rock in its interior and is covered with a mantle of ice that, if thawed, would provide more fresh water than is found on Earth.
Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi first discovered Ceres in 1801, over a century before the discovery of the more well-known dwarf planet Pluto in 1930.
Ceres measures 950 kilometers (590 miles) in diameter, which is less than a third of the size of the moon.
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